Helping non-geoscience majors understand societal impacts of environmental issues in technical writing courses
In this semester-long activity, students explore the interdisciplinary nature of environmental issues. Throughout the semester, students develop a scientific term paper that ties a topic in their current field of study with an environmental problem. During the first two class periods, students view the video "SWITCH: DISCOVER THE FUTURE OF ENERGY." Students then participate in small-group and full-class discussions about environmental issues, and how they are related to their field of study. Students also start to develop a title for a term paper that will link their current field of study to one or more environmental problems affecting society. After a title is developed, it goes through a peer review process, and then on to the instructor for final approval. Once approved the student develops a 2500-3000-word scientific manuscript. During the last week of the semester, students present their research for approximately 1 hour in the form of a professional poster at the departmental "Poster Fest", an event that is open to the public.
Within this context, students learn the following concepts:
- There are many environmental issues facing today's world
- Most of these issues need input from multiple disciplines to become resolved
- How traditional and non-traditional sources of energy are being produced, and the environmental impacts of each
- The final discussion associated with this activity requires students to present their research in poster form at the departmental poster-fest.
Context for Use
Description and Teaching Materials
Traditionally, during the first two weeks of a scientific writing class, the students are given the task of creating a title for a term paper that will be developed throughout the semester. Additionally, the students use the finished manuscript to produce a scientific poster that is presented at the end of the semester during the departmental "Poster Fest." This event simulates professional presentations and gives students the experience needed for this type of environment and growth in their scientific discipline.
In previous semesters, prior to the implementation of this activity, students were given the freedom to choose a "scientific" topic, related to their major. For example, Sports and Exercise Science students typically select topics on "recovering from an ACL tear", or "how water therapy can strengthen specific muscles in the body." Another example would be a Chemistry major selecting a topic on some aspect of inorganic chemistry. After becoming involved with the InTeGrate program, it was proposed that the course be modified for the Spring, 2016 semester in order to help students understand the connection between their major and environmental issues facing society today. To continue to allow for freedom in the classroom (allowing students to choose their own topic of interest) the class was modified, and the requirements for selecting a topic slightly changed.
During the first two weeks of class students were challenged to select a topic that would relate to their field of study and make a connection to some type of environmental issue facing society today. Therefore, students retained the academic freedom to still choose a topic that connected with their major, but they would need to add the environmental component. In order to aid students in making these connections, the first two weeks of class were focused on these environmental issues in place of lectures dedicated to selecting general scientific topics of non-environmental concern.
Throughout the semester, the students started to make connections between their majors and environmental concerns they never thought possible. For example, a dietetics major after the first class meeting asked "how could my major have any connection to an environmental concern." After the second week of class, her title was developed, and she started to see a strong connection between her major and sustainable farming techniques, which she then went on to write a 10 page scientific manuscript, and develop a poster that she presented passionately during our departmental "Poster Fest".
Teaching Notes and Tips
- Students may have a hard time linking their interests/college major with some environmental concern. Dedicating a 50-mineut period, with in-class discussions on how various disciplines relate to these types of societal issues often helps make a connection. Reviewing students' majors before the first day of class should help the instructor prepare examples to be used in class.
- Having students develop an initial title within the first week of class, and having it peer/instructor reviewed often helps.
- The video "Switch" can be streamed or a DVD disk can be ordered. Regardless of format, it can take several weeks to several months to receive a DVD copy OR an access code to have permission to stream. The video can sometimes be found on YouTube, however I have found this is not a reliable source.
- Poster printing can get expensive, however it is a vital part of the project. Consider having students print with no background color and no fill color in text boxes to conserve ink and reduce costs. If necessary, the posters could alternatively be printed on 11"x17" paper, however this is not ideal.
Prior to introducing the activity, a pre-instruction attitudinal survey was completed. After students present their research at Poster-fest, a post-instruction attitudinal survey was taken. Results from the two surveys are collected, analyzed, and reported.
FINAL ASSESSMENT: Students final papers and posters are assessed by modifying the typical rubric used during this class to include a section about environmental concern.
After reviewing the results for the Pre-instruction attitudinal survey (IAI) and the Post-instruction attitudinal survey (IAI), see comments from randomly selected students below, there is clearly a strong indicator that through this type of course modification in the SCI-291 class at UNC, aids in students not only becoming more aware of the environmental issues facing society today, but they are becoming more passionate about the topic and are making connections between their major and the environment. It is recommended that this type of pedagogy be implemented into ALL Scientific Writing classes at UNC to try to help students and our future generation understand the importance of these issues, and how they are directly related to everyone, not just geoscientists.
References and Resources
- SWITCH energy film and education project (The complete film can be accessed here (password needed))
- #energy-issues (collection of short primer videos dealing with energy issues)
- Energy curricula for the classroom: This page has many resources for energy curriculum ranging from elementary to higher education. The page is nicely organized, and has many resources for teaching about energy and problems associated with it.
- Facebook page with the latest Switch energy articles.
- Energy lab videos describing core concepts of traditional and alternative energy sources.